Monday, August 27, 2007


There's a famous mosaic at the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, depicting chained dog and warning CAVE CANEM - Beware of the Dog. No need to cave canem in Pompeii these days, as all the curs I beheld were Connoisseurs of The Snooze, guarding only the insides of their eyelids. Hounds were sacked out left and right in whatever shady spot was available, including one smack in the middle of a public bath (beyond the guard ropes!), and two in separate rooms at the "lupanare" - the brothel.

Prostitutes were referred to as "lupa", female wolves. The lupanare is tucked onto a side street, and I spent at least one hot, dusty hour searching specifically for it. When I arrived at Pompeii at 10:00am, the info office had mysteriously already run out of maps. I had actually completely given up, was about to leave, and returned to take a picture of one of the nifty raised stone cross-walks (handy for street flooding), when voilà, I came across the brothel.

You can spend hours getting lost in the street of Pompeii. It's still being excavated, and large sections are not available to the public. Which leaves plenty else to see and wonder at, including the famous casts taken of victims buried in ash, whose bodies have long since decomposed, leaving a person-shaped hollow. I remember reading about Pompeii in a National Geographic article when I was a kid - or rather, looking at the pictures of bodies - and at the time it seemed like another world. I never thought then that I would be standing here looking at them now. But it is another world, and truly bizarre to contemplate how an entire town was flash-fried-frozen in time. Thinking about Vesuvius blowing its top, I hope it was quick for most of the citizens, but the expression on some of the faces indicates that it wasn't an easy death.

I head back to Sorrento mid-day. It's a fairly small town, but being right on the coast, also a main vacation destination. It's known for lemons and marquetry. I guess the lemons grow there naturally, but the origins of marquetry are a mystery to me. I may have been able to find it out at the Marquetry Museum, but no one was home when I stumbled across it. I settled for a picture of the outside.

Old cities with lots of narrow streets are always good for strolling. Especially when you come across weird things, like this painting over a door:

I saw this scene depicted elsewhere in a museum, so I'm guessing it's relating some fable, but I don't know which. Enlighten me, if you do.

When I'm on the road, I'm normally a cheap eater. I don't care for sitting in restaurants by myself, and generally find them too extravagent for someone who my simple, non-gourmet tastes. But occasionally I'll partake, and since I ate almost nothing on the slog from Allerona to Sorrento the day before, I treat myself. I took a picture, since this is actually the first time I've eaten out on this trip.

In Sorrento, I'm staying at the Nube d'Argento campground. I dragged my tent over from the States to camp at the wedding, but never actually used it, having instead grabbed a free bed in one of the farmhouses. All the Italian guests were too busy partying at 2:00 in the morning to show me where to pitch it, and I wouldn't have been able to handle it then anyway. I think Nube d'Argento means Silver Cloud, which can hardly describe the ground my tent is on. More like the Pompeii prostitutes' beds, it's all rocky. But it's hot and humid, and I feel sweaty even after having taken a cold shower, so I can use both layers of my sleeping bag as a mattress. It's not making a whole lot of difference.

The next morning I pack it all up, and take the Circumvesuviana commuter train to Naples. Naples is an old, gritty, working port city, and doesn't seem to have time for glitzing things up for tourists. The trashy streets, zooming traffic, and oppressive air that's threatening rain remind me of Boston for a moment when I step out of the metro. I'm going to the Naples Archeological museum, which is suffering from either from a lack of funds, lack of someone who gives a crap about presentation, or both. After strolling right in the middle of the ruins of Pompeii, this museum leaves me disappointed and thinking, "Was that all?" Several of the original bronzes and mosaics from Pompeii are displayed here, merely placed on dingy white walls with time-ravaged information cards scotch-taped to plastic stands. Marbles and statues litter the ground floor, and actually may be of interest to those who are interested in restoration, since several have undergone this process, and there are informational posters by the subjects in question. It just seems...sparse. For obvious reasons, the most fascinating display is the Secret Room, presenting a collection of erotic art. Groups need to make reservations, children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult, but single sightseers can just stroll in. And gawk. Porn? Some, but not all of it. I think the ancients were just far less prudish than modern society about depictions of genitalia and sex. In addition, many of these objects and painting are talismans for abundance and wealth.

Heading out of the museum into the oppressive air, I spend the rest of the afternoon walking through the town. I stop in at the Central Post Office to get stamps, but they don't have any; just a metering machine. What kind of post office doesn't have stamps? At least one in Naples doesn't.

Naples does have sfogliatella, which is an oil-drenched crispy pastry filled with sweet ricotta cheese. Of course I need to try one, and pop into a cafe for a pick-me-up. Coffee in Italy is served in tiny cups, with massive sugar packets twice the size found in the United States. Maybe they are using intense sweetness to make up for lack of caffeine content. I've reduced my daily coffee intake by about 80% here, and only use half of the great big sugar packets. Quality, not quantity matters, although I do miss swilling mugs of coffee. I always take my cafe snacks at the bar, since it's cheaper than sitting at a table, plus I get to watch the baristas working the industrial espresso machines, and wielding stacks of saucers and cups.

I came through Naples on my way to Sorrento, and noticed that there is graffiti everywhere here; great big graffiti covering yards of wall space. Here are some pictures, taken mostly through the door, or on the platform of the Circumvesuviana commuter train, plus a cigarette disposal container with what I think is a classy logo.

There's one thing I'm bummed about missing in Naples because I showed up too late - one of the banks has a Caravaggio, and the public is free to view it. They were already closed when I bounced up to the door, but the guard seemed to know exactly why I was there. Indicating his watch, he told me they'll be open tomorrow. It'll have to wait, since I won't be here. It's time to go to the train station for an overnight train to the Cinque Terre.

There's a pack of dogs roaming the Naples train station. No snoozing here!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

the bride wore shades of red and orange

So the whole reason I'm here in Italy in August is because my old chum Jami, is getting re-married to her husband, Daniele. I say re-married, because they were already legally married in Chicago a couple of years ago, in a rather smartly staged elopement. Daniele is Italian, so we're all here, Americans, Italians, at least one Spaniard, various others, all family, to celebrate. Celebrating an Italian wedding includes lots of cheese, with at least one godzilla mozzarella bigger than my head. Unfortunately, it was decimated by ravenous wedding guests before I could get a picture, but here's a slice of it, surrounded by it's smaller brethren and some other members of the cheese family.

I still don't have a good idea on how an Italian wedding is handled; seems to be mostly controlled chaos, and things sort of happen when they happen. The tone is set as soon as we arrive - four of us arrive separately on the same train in Allerona, a tiny town 1.5 hours northish of Rome. We want to call someone to pick us up, but the one pay phone in town doesn't actually have a phone, just a couple of wires sticking out. Since none of us know how to hot wire the Italian telecomm system, we revert to the next public phone, located in the back of a bar next to the train station. This time the phone actually exists, but doesn't want to recognize any input from the keypad, leaving us stuck on the language menu. Out of public phone options, a couple of us try our luck at a cafe, and find a group of teens, none of whom speak English, and all of whom have cell phones. Two one-sided conversations, and lots of dialed numbers later, we have a ride. Or at least we think we do, having been given the vague assurance that "Someone will surely come to pick you up." Hmm. During the 1.5 hours that we endured this ordeal (not really - it was a nice afternoon), we noticed that cruising is the main pastime in Allerona, as the same group of cars and scooters keep zipping around the block and cutting through the train station parking lot.

Someone surely does pick us up, and we spend a day and a half lounging around farmhouses on the Monte Rufeno Natural Reservoir, wondering when dinner was going to be served (late), being bitten by mosquitoes, and making new friends. I drank only about 4 ounces of coffee the entire weekend, after an effort that required 3 people, 40 minutes, a broken perculator, and a spoon. Remember what I wrote about languid life in Rome? It's everywhere else in Italy, too. My lack of caffeine is ameliorated by mozzarella left over from dinner being served for breakfast.

Here's a pic of the bride, groom, and a multi-tiered tart with sparklers (served at 2:00am):

nuns make me nervous

If I could go back in time, one of my main destinations would be the heyday of the ancient Roman empire. In Rome, or course. (The other main destination would be New York in the Roaring 20s, but that's for another blog).

Sarah drives me to Gatwick at 4:30 in the morning. What a pal. She has a mini Daihatsu van that may even be shorter than my Metropolitan. I've crammed all the gear I'm taking with me into my rucksack, and weighing in around 35 pounds, it's heavier than I want it to be. The main culprits, other than all the electronics, is a small pile of guidebooks; but they will slowly diminish as I leave each country and leave them behind. As soon as the plane takes off I doze off. I wanted to look out the window to watch Europe passing by, but since I got up about approximately one hour after falling asleep this morning, the urge to catch a nap wins out. Leaving a typically drizzly England behind, I land in a toasty and sunny Rome. Everyone is smoking, which is quite possibly raising the temperature a few degrees.

I'm staying at one of the many convents that rent out rooms to travelers. They can frequently be a good budget option (although not all the time), as long as you don't care about luxury, plan on staying out all night (curfews always apply), or require an English-speaking staff. The nun at the desk, in full traditional habit, babbles away at me in Italian, despite the evident non capisco happening on my part, but gets me checked in, and educated on on the house rules. Smiles, pointing at signs, and hand gestures can get you a long way when you don't share a common language. A miniscule elevator takes me to the third floor. Initially dazzled by the highly polished floors, I have trouble finding my room; it's actually off a landing on the way to the roof terrace. Like the elevator, it's miniscule, but immaculate. I really don't need anything else.

Before I left I timed the elevator. It took a full 35 seconds to rise from the ground to the third floor. It doesn't sound like a long time, but count it out. Now count it out imagining you're stuck in an elevator the size of a bathroom stall, with two nuns, neither of whom are speaking English, and you just screwed up by pushing the third floor button before the first floor button was pushed (evidently, the elevator could only visit floors in order of buttons pushed, not order of ascension). I didn't get what the nun said to me, but I figured out I did something wrong. Oops.

Rome feels old. It in the layers of dirt, ruins laying about in plain view continuing their slow ruination, ankle-bruising cobblestones, dinky shops, sun-baked bleached-outness, narrow streets that change names at every turn, barely a right angle to be found anywhere, and a languid pace to life. Unless you're a tourist. When I finally hit the Roman streets, I find them teeming with tourists. Never before have I seen so many people looking hot, looking lost, looking at maps, and looking in books to tell them what to go look at next. I was warned that locals throughout the Mediterranean basically take the month of August off , but didn't quite realize the extent to which is actually happens. Almost none of the shops are open, but every major site, and sight, has a sweaty crowd.

As to be expected, many of the sites in Rome have to do either with the Roman Empire (the Colosseum), God (the Vatican), or the two butting heads (the Mamertine Prison where Peter was chained, featuring an upside-down cross). I spend three days taking in a little taste of everything.

The first church I hit is the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, technically part of the Vatican, if I have my facts straight. I took about ten photos during my entire two and half days in London, and inside the Basilica I finally start snapping away like a maniac. The place is awash in marble and stone, which I'm going to discover is a common denominator in Rome's many churches. Anyone shopping for a new kitchen counter is advised to use Rome's holy houses as showrooms, because the most spectacular array of naturally occurring crazy designs is on display, made even more crazy by the builders who incorporated them all together.

All the Vatican churches in Rome are staffed by the fashion police, strictly forbidding bare shoulders and shorts (clam-diggers are acceptable). And if you're a guy, don't think that you can swing your girlfriend's shawl over your muscle-T, because they aren't having any of that cross-dressing hanky-panky because we all know where that leads (not actually witnessed by me, but so funny I had to tell it here). Bags are also sent through an x-ray machine at St. Peter's, and a posted sign forbids carrying knives. I have a swiss army knife in my bag, and I think I'm about to kiss it goodbye, but my bag pops out and no one is yelling at me in Italian. I grab my bag and scuttle into the crowd before the guard clues in to start doing his job. Obviously he wasn't one of the Swiss Guards, or else I'd probably be in the dungeon now. They wear the ultimate stripey pants! But the walkie-talkie doesn't really go with the rest of the outfit.

St. Peter's Basilica is also bedecked with marble, and tourists gaping upwards at the hugely high dome. It is a massive building, famously being able to contain entire other churches, and I have to admit being impressed by its construction. And check it out - it has a painting of the holy cow! Moo!

And oh yeah, the Pieta is here, behind bullet-proof glass ever since some looney (not Michelangelo) decided to take a chisel to it. It's a lot smaller than I thought it would be - the figures are close to life-sized. For some reason I was thinking something closer to the Lincoln Memorial, but not by a long shot.

And what's Christianity without religious relics. Curiously, the two churches I went to that had heavy hitting relics also had more humble interiors. Perhaps you're meant to be dazzled by holy objects instead of geological forces. Santa Croce in Gerusalemme not only has the finger bone of Doubting Thomas, but boasts two whole thorns from the crown of Christ. And my favorite by far, the chains that held St. Peter in St. Peter-in-Chains. Not only do I like metal objects, but these relics are so big you actually see them, even though they are encased in an opulent box, as are all relics, which I find somewhat contradictory. Shouldn't these objects be allowed to dazzle on their own?

St. Peter-in-Chains also has a statue of Moses by Michelangelo. As the story goes, due to an apparent mistranslation from the Hebrew, Moses has horns on his head instead of rays; I was later told that Michelangelo did this on purpose, but need to research that angle. Intentional horns or not, I think it looks like he's wearing one of those kitty cat ear headbands.

And finally...the Vatican Museum. I initially was going to skip this, but after a couple of days of musing, decided that I shouldn't let a chance to see the Sistine Chapel go by. Who know when I'll be in Rome again. The Sistine Chapel is the final room of the sprawling Vatican Museum, and there's no way to see only the chapel. Admission isn't regulated at all, so you stand in line (for hours), see as much of the ancient Roman, Etruscan, and Egyptian artifacts as you want (probably none, since you feel like crap after standing in line for hours), and then start the long haul through chambers and chambers of painted rooms (some by Raphael - rather nice) before you get to the chapel.

Anyone who has been to San Diego's Comic Con has remarked on how...humid the convention floor can be at its height, full of nerds going gaga over the array of comic candy in front of them. The Sistine Chapel is ten times worse. No photography is allowed, yet everyone is snapping away, and guards are snapping at whomever is stupid enough to do it in front of them. Most of the offenders are never reprimanded, and probably don't know or don't care that they've done something wrong. Whether or not photography should be allowed is up for debate, but the fact that standing in a room with hundreds of people who are hot and cranky from getting the Vatican runaround is a lousy way to examine and appreciate one of the most celebrated paintings of our time is not. As soon as I get in, I want to get out. Seeing the chapel was great. Seeing it in those conditions was awful. Is that a wash? I dunno. I think I got screwed by the Vatican. Pope Benedict, you owe me 13 euro, and I know your coffers can afford it. Clearly it's all about Cash, because anyone who cared about Art wouldn't subject it or those who want to see it to that ordeal. Take a lesson from the Galleria Borghese - admission by reservation only, with a limited number of people allowed inside for a two hour window. No fuss, no muss, no crowds. I really dig the painted ceilings in the Galleria - most, if not all, are depicting Greek myths, and the gods and goddesses are frequently depicted perched on little fluffy clouds, meddling in the ways of humans that only the Greek pantheon can meddle.

Another museum with no crowds, which requires no reservation, and is a mere 4 euro admission, is the Musical Instruments Museum. Of interest to those, obviously, who like musical instruments, a couple objects of note include one of the three pianos made by Bartolomeo Christofori, inventor of the pianoforte, and mandolins fashioned from the carapaces of armadillos. Neato!

Lest it seem like I spent all my time gawking at the excesses of the Catholic Church, I did spend quite a number of hours sweating amongst the ruins of the Roman Empire, and getting lost in the twisty Roman streets. Rome is the first city to have broken my normally reliable sense of direction. I got completely turned around on my first day, and ended up back where I started, when I was trying to go in the opposite direction. The Circus Maximus is a bit of a letdown, being dusty and not a chariot in sight. The Pantheon, swamped as the rest of Rome in tourists, is another nifty example of ingenious engineering, and is as imposing as St. Peter's Basilica. It is a little mind-bending to ponder that you're standing on the exact same ground whereupon Caesar stood, albeit without his timeless coiffure.

Rome isn't as oppressively hot as I expected it to be, but I still end each day feeling like a gummi bear. Even the nuns aren't immune, and I catch one about to tuck into a bowl of gelato upon returning one day.

So, wish I had seen: Cappuchin Crypt. Wish I had missed: Vatican Museum. Rome deserves more time than I gave it, but not in August.

I forgot to mention one of the more thought-provoking items from the Wellcome Collection in the London blog. A tobacco resuscitator used to...revive a victim of drowning by blowing tobacco up their rectum. Who knew?! Now you do, should you ever come across such an unfortunate.

Friday, August 17, 2007

london lowdown

I got a good look of both San Francisco and London from above on this flight. San Francisco (well, at least the part not covered in the fog bank), is tight and compact. And the hills don't look nearly as steep when viewed from whatever thousand feet we were at. London, on the other hand, sprawls, seemingly without end, in all directions. I've flown in before several times, but didn't really notice until now exactly how immense this city is.

I'm staying with Sarah, an old college friend from Leeds University. My flight was an overnight, so I'm a little bleary, and only getting blearier as the day progresses, despite Sarah's best efforts to ladle a constant stream of black tea into me. We spend the afternoon strolling around the leafy bits of East Dulwich, including the overgrown Victorian Nunhead Cemetary. I'll go see anything Victorian. I sneak a cat nap right before tea, which allows me to stay up until around 23:00, which I really shouldn't have done, because I wake up on my second day feeling all sorts of terrible. Eye-popping headache, nausea, and sweats. Then chills. Then sweats again. I manage to drag myself out of bed to dig through my luggage to find some ibuprofen. I try wandering around the flat, including a spell perched on the edge of the bathtub, waiting for myself to throw up - it never happens. There are foxes living in the garden below the flat, so I spend some time at the kitchen window waiting for them to put on a morning appearance. That doesn't happen either, but the sunshine makes me feel slightly better. Being anything than horizontal is starting to become difficult, so I just stumble back to my clammy sleeping bag and crash out for another two hours. I don't know what I had, but it's gone by the time I wake up again. I don't feel like tempting fate by putting anything in my stomach, so I skip breakfast and caffeine - a dicey decision, since I'm hopelessly addicted to caffeine, and get enormous headaches if I don't have any. Since I've already had the enormous headache, I'm hoping it just evens out, and my skull doesn't explode. I hop on a bus to meet another college friend, Charlotte, in Covent Square Garden.

The last time I was in England was just over three years ago for Charlotte's wedding (on her grandmother's dairy farm, how nifty is that), so we have a lot of catching up to do. We wander the rooms of the National Gallery, getting yelled at by one of the staff for pointing too closely at something. This guy was taking his job seriously, because he also yelled at the next couple who looked (and pointed) at it. Protecting art is good, but he must be exhausted by the end of the day. Some day he's probably going to startle some poor sod into jerking their hand forward, rather than back. We admire the Dutch painters, wondering why they always include a dog in their work. And I visit one of my favorites here, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Morbid subject matter aside, it's a beautiful painting. You can almost reach out and untie the laces on her bodice. I spent a lot of time at the National when I was a student, and on more recent trips. It's a great base in London - cafe, telephone, toilets, postcards, art. What more do you need?

Well, if you need modern art, then you go the Tate Modern. Right by the Thames Millennium Bridge, it's housed in an old brick power plant, dominated by one huge chimney. The enormous entryway doesn't have an installation right now, so one can appreciate the vastness of it. I think it's a rather clever design, with big steps that you can crash out on and people watch when the art has tired you out. Highlights of this trip is the room of Rothko's that were commissioned by a restaurant, but which he then withdrew. They are displayed in proximity to one another, and in the muted light that they were intended to be seen. And the Francis Bacon's - he doesn't appeal to all, but he does to me. The Modern has some particularly disturbing ones. But I didn't see any Pope's Head versions, the freakiest of them all.

And I took a picture of an enormous cheese wheel at Neal's Cheese Shop. Too bad it won't fit into my luggage. And too bad it's a crappy picture.

As evening rolls in, and Charlotte rolls out to go home, I spend some time wandering about and getting lost. Or, not getting lost; evidently all roads in London lead to Trafalger Square, because I manage to return to it three times without trying to. Actually, while trying to get somewhere else. I suppose my London navigational skills can stand for some improvement.

The next day is my final day in town for this leg. The one place I really want to go is to the temple of craft - the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The collection of the V & A would take a lifetime to scrutinize and examine. I'm going to have to do with only a few hours. Sarah and I trawl the rooms of fashion, musical instruments, ironwork, metalwork, stained glass, and furniture, and we're barely scratching the surface. After our brains are full of craft, we head to Euston for the closing hour of the Wellcome Collection of medical curios, and other oddities. Surgical instruments, a ram's head fashioned into a snuffbox. Muybridge prints, a lock of hair from mad King George (the third? don't quote me), more than one rather grim vanitas, glassware, a Chinese doctor's sign made almost entirely from strands of human teeth. I'll be going back there again.

It's worth mentioning that all these museums I visited, and so many more in London, are completely free. I don't know if I've ever seen this in the Bay Area, although I know DC's Smithsonian, the closest parallel I can think of, is free. Londoners are lucky duckies to be able to visit these objects whenever they choose, and consume the collections in nibble-sized chunks, rather than a massive brain-clogging chew. Or to be able to visit a favorite piece often. Would I go sit in front of The Execution of Lady Jane Grey once a month only to find some unseen detail I hadn't noticed before? Sure I would. Who wouldn't?

Coming up next: Gosh, Rome is hot.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

a fruit cup is not dessert

Dear Airlines: Just because I pre-ordered a vegetarian meal, it doesn't mean that I'm a healthy eater. So I don't want a fruit cup for dessert. How about a cookie? Or a little chocolate bar would be nice. And I don't want to hear any malarkey about fruit being Nature's candy, because that's what people who are trying to fool themselves say. On the other hand, the vegan coconut curry was quite yummy.

I am in London, visiting friends and seeing art at the National Gallery and Tate Modern. Poked my head into Neal's Cheese Shop for a big whiff. And finally got a proper dessert (Brazilian Cream) at a vegetarian restaurant in Neal's Place. I'll try to post my itinerary on this page as soon as I get some time to figure this out some more. But right now, it's time to be off the the V&A Museum. Tomorrow...Rome!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

domestic exotica

I fly away from the United States this Saturday, and set up this blog to chronicle my travels in the next few months. But since I haven't actually left yet, this post is about my other pastime, furniture. One of the things I really wanted to finish before leaving was a music stand I've been working on, and at some point in the last couple of weeks I realized it just wasn't going to happen. Getting everything else sorted out was pulling my attention in too many directions to devote the time and care it deserved, and if I rushed it, something Bad would happen. So it's just going to have to wait until I get back. But I'm satisfied to leave it where it is now; it's fully assembled, and all the questions that were plaguing me about about the mechanical movements and metal bits have been noodled through; thanks Drew R. and David D. for all their advice and assistance in getting things designed and machined. Also for gently shaming me into learning how to braze instead of taking the easy, but far less classy, epoxy road. I really wanted to show them the piece in it's glorious stripey curly woodness, but we'll have to do with pictures for now.